A ladder to the sky, p.5
A Ladder to the Sky, p.5John Boyne
‘You see?’ he said, swimming over towards me now. ‘I told you it’s easy. You’re a natural!’
‘I suppose I’ve never tried before,’ I replied, grinning at him and watching as he flipped over on to his back and stretched his arms out to swim away from me, gliding along with the confidence of a shark. I started to swim too, enjoying myself at last, but quite soon I heard the sound of furious splashing in the distance and looked towards my friend, whose arms were flailing uselessly as he disappeared beneath the water and rose from it again, and I realized that he was in distress. I swam over, throwing my body towards him, and although he struggled against me, as a drowning man always will, he soon submitted and I turned him in such a way that his head was above the lake while my hand held steady beneath his chin, using my other arm to direct us back towards the shore. When I dragged us both out we lay next to each other for several minutes, exhausted and gasping for air, until Oskar rolled over on to one side, coughing feverishly as the water rose from his lungs, and I put a hand on his shoulder, telling him that he was all right, that he was alive and had nothing more to fear. We lay there for a long time, the sun beating down on our bodies, and when he dozed off it was with my arm across his chest, a hand stretching low across his abdomen, resting in a spot just below his navel. I was still lying like this some minutes later when he awoke with a start, pulling himself away from me in embarrassment as I sat up. I covered myself quickly with one hand, although it was obvious that he had noticed my tumescence for he turned away with a confused expression on his face and said nothing before standing up and making his way over to his clothes and dressing once again. He kept his back to me throughout all of this and only when I was fully clothed did he speak.
‘I don’t know what happened,’ he said, looking a little embarrassed. ‘I suppose I went in too soon after eating. I got cramp, you see, and my legs wouldn’t work.’
‘It’s over, anyway,’ I said. ‘No harm done.’
‘You told me that you couldn’t swim. But actually, you’re an excellent swimmer. I could tell as you were bringing me to the shore. Why did you lie?’
‘I didn’t lie. I was focussed on helping you, that’s all, and I suppose my natural instincts simply took over.’
He thought about this and I could tell that he was unconvinced. ‘Well, thank you, Erich,’ he said at last, his forehead wrinkling into deep furrows as he considered his brush with mortality. ‘I would have drowned if it wasn’t for you.’
I turned to look at him and we stared at each other, the shared awkwardness unsettling me. ‘We should continue on our way,’ I said finally. The afternoon had been peculiar and disconcerting and I longed to be back on my bicycle, working off my desires through exercise. ‘We still have about twenty kilometres to Potsdam.’
Later, it seemed that we had made a silent agreement not to mention the incident again and we enjoyed a good dinner and more beer, but eventually, tired from the exertions of the day, we retired to bed earlier than usual. I found it hard to sleep, though, disturbed by the unfamiliar sound of his breathing in the next bed, and eventually rose, sitting by the window and opening the curtain a little to stare out towards the fields beyond. The moon was almost full and as the light slipped into the room I turned around to observe the arch of Oskar’s bare back as he slept, appreciating the gift the sheets had given me as they fell from his body. I grew aroused again, laying hands upon myself as quietly as possible, recalling all the things that I had seen that afternoon and what I could see now, climaxing so quickly into a handkerchief that my accompanying cry of pleasure seemed loud enough to wake him. And then, simultaneously satisfied and frustrated, I climbed back into bed and fell quickly asleep.
‘What would you have done had he woken up?’ asked Maurice, looking at me with wide eyes but no trace of embarrassment, despite the crude nature of these memories.
‘I don’t know,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘Laughed it off, I suppose. Died of humiliation. One or the other.’
He quizzed me on more aspects of the day, and the conversations that we’d had the following morning, but the recollections, along with the wine, had tired me out and finally I confessed that I could stay up no longer. We finished what was left in our glasses before saying goodnight and retiring to our rooms.
Just before I fell asleep, however, it occurred to me that I had forgotten to tell him what time we should meet the following morning and, as there was no telephone by the bed, I had no choice but to get up, don my clothes and go out into the corridor, making my way down the staircase towards his room, where I tapped cautiously on his door in the contradictory way that one does when one wants to get the attention of the occupant but is also wary of disturbing him. He didn’t answer, so I knocked louder, pressing my face to the wood this time as I half whispered, half called his name. Again, there was no reply and I assumed that he had fallen into a deep sleep from which it would be impossible to wake him. And so I returned to my room and scribbled a note on some hotel notepaper before returning to the lower floor and sliding it beneath his door, having knocked one more time but again been frustrated by the silence from within.
As I made my way back towards the staircase, however, I saw Dash Hardy ascending from the foyer holding a bottle of champagne. He turned in my direction and stopped immediately, as if he had seen a ghost, before pulling himself together and asking whether I had enjoyed my evening. I replied in the affirmative before adding that I was tired, that it had been a pleasure to meet him – which it had not – and continuing on my way.
‘Goodnight, Erich,’ he called after me, before adding in a sing-song voice, ‘Sweet dreams!’
I rolled my eyes impatiently, and it was only as I fell asleep that I began to wonder why he had been carrying two glasses in his hand.
In July, I found myself drinking a glass of rosé outside a bar in Montmartre, a chestnut tree shading me from the late summer sunlight, while I observed the closing moments of a marriage. A woman in her late forties, very beautiful, with short black hair and expensive sunglasses, had been sitting alone since my arrival with a large glass of white wine and an envelope on the table before her. She had already smoked three cigarettes and was lighting a fourth when a man appeared, perhaps a little older than her but dressed just as smartly, holding his hands in the air in apology for his tardiness, and she stood to allow him to kiss her on both cheeks. The waitress brought a second glass and she poured some wine for him as he reached into his bag and removed a similar envelope to hers. They spoke for some time and at one point he laughed and put an arm around her shoulders before they picked up the envelopes and took out two lengthy documents. Turning to the last page of each they allowed their pens to hover over the paper for only a moment before signing simultaneously, then passed each one to the other, whereupon they signed again. Finally, the man returned both forms to his bag and the couple removed their wedding rings, dropping each one into their glasses before standing up, kissing on the lips and walking off in opposite directions, their hands drifting out behind them, their fingers touching momentarily before they disappeared from my sight and, presumably, from each other’s lives.
I was still staring at the empty glasses and their expensive additions when Maurice appeared from around the corner, raising a hand in greeting as he sat down to join me. It was a warm afternoon, and when his beer arrived, he drank a third of it without pausing for breath, sitting back with a satisfied sigh.
‘I visited the Père Lachaise Cemetery while you were doing your interviews,’ he told me. ‘Placed my hand on top of Oscar Wilde’s grave.’
‘And I daresay you’ll never wash it again,’ I said.
‘I want to be entombed when I’m gone,’ he said, sitting up straight now. ‘Or have a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.’
‘I hope you’re joking,’ I said.
‘Of course I am,’ he replied, bursting into laughter. ‘I’m not that arrogant. No, I don’t care what happen
‘That’s important to you?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It’s the only thing. Well, that and, as I told you before, becoming a father.’
‘You’re still intent on that?’
‘But you’re so young.’
He shrugged. ‘I don’t see what that has to do with anything,’ he said. ‘Did you never want one? A child, I mean.’
‘Well, it would have been—’ I began, but he cut me off.
‘Just because you’re gay doesn’t mean you wouldn’t have enjoyed being a father.’
‘True,’ I said. ‘But I never gave it much consideration, to be honest. I knew it was never going to happen so it wasn’t something that preyed on my mind.’
I glanced out towards the street, where a pair of schoolgirls were walking past in short skirts. I watched to see whether Maurice’s eyes would follow them and they did for a few moments, but without any particular interest, as he finished his beer and ordered another.
‘By the way,’ he said, reaching into his satchel and pulling out a magazine that he handed across. ‘I have a present for you.’ The publication was titled Coney Island and I felt an immediate aversion to the cover image, a close-up of a clown vomiting letters on the heads of George Bush and Michael Dukakis.
‘Thank you,’ I said, uncertain why he thought I would be interested in such a thing.
‘Turn to page sixteen,’ he said, and I did as instructed, whereupon I discovered a title, ‘Red’, with the words ‘by Maurice Swift’ printed in large letters underneath. ‘My first published story,’ he said, grinning from ear to ear.
‘Maurice!’ I said, truly delighted for him. ‘Congratulations!’
‘I didn’t know that you were even submitting to magazines.’
‘Well, I haven’t been, to be honest,’ he told me. ‘But I happen to know one of the editors there and he asked whether I might have something that would work for them. So I sent this along and he liked it.’
‘Well, I’m very happy for you,’ I said. ‘You must feel very encouraged.’
‘And your novel? How is that coming along?’
‘Ah,’ he said, pulling a face. ‘Slowly. I have the opening chapters and a good hold on my characters but I’m not sure where it’s going as yet.’
‘You haven’t plotted it out?’ I asked.
‘Oh no,’ he said, looking at me as if I’d just accused him of spending his days watching television. ‘I could never do something like that. Doesn’t it all become a little boring if you know everything that happens in advance?’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, and I might have challenged him further on it were it not for an interruption by our waitress, who came over holding a tray that carried the two glasses from the divorcing couple’s table and looking inside them with an astonished expression on her face. She asked whether I had seen who had left them there and I related the events as I’d observed them earlier and she shook her head in disbelief before making her way back indoors. A moment later, Maurice’s trusty notebook was on the table again and he was scribbling away.
‘What are you writing?’ I asked him.
‘The story you just told her,’ he said. ‘It’s a good one. I thought I might use it for something.’
‘As it happens,’ I said, ‘after they left I thought the same thing. That it might make for an interesting opening for a novel. I was working through some possibilities in my mind.’
He lifted his notebook and waved it in the air triumphantly. ‘Sorry, Erich,’ he said. ‘It’s mine now. I wrote it down first!’
‘You don’t mind, do you?’
‘No, of course not,’ I said, a little surprised by his literary larceny. ‘You’re still coming to Shakespeare & Company tonight, I hope?’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘What time is your reading?’
‘And after that?’
‘Dinner with the publishers.’
‘Ah,’ he said. ‘Do you mind if I skip that one? I have a friend in Paris. We were thinking of meeting for a drink, that’s all. Of course, I’ll join you if you really want me to but—’
‘It’s entirely your decision,’ I said. ‘Don’t bother if you’re not interested.’
‘Of course I’m interested,’ he said. ‘And normally I’d love to come. It’s just that I haven’t seen her in some time. She was a colleague of mine in the Savoy.’
‘And you were friends?’
‘Yes. Good friends.’
‘What’s her name?’ I asked.
‘Clémence. She hopes to be a photographer someday. She photographs nudes.’
‘I hope she hasn’t photographed you,’ I said, laughing.
‘She has, yes.’
‘Oh.’ I found myself blushing scarlet, a mixture of embarrassment and envy coursing through my body. ‘Aren’t you worried about them getting out?’
‘Not in the slightest. I’d be happy for people to see them. They’re very artistic. She’s photographed many other people too, not just me. I daresay she’ll have an exhibition one day. Would you like one? I could bring one back for you if you like.’
He smiled. Was he taunting me? Deliberately twisting the levers of power between us? ‘No thank you,’ I said primly.
‘Suit yourself. But I’ll find a pay phone and call her to say that I can’t make it if—’
‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘Of course you must meet her. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling your evening.’ I hesitated slightly. ‘Will you be in the hotel bar later, do you think? After I return? We could have our usual nightcap.’
‘What time will you be back?’
‘Let’s say that if I’m there, I’m there, and if I’m not, then I’m either still out with Clémence or I’ve gone to bed early. Don’t bother waiting up for me.’
‘All right,’ I said, feeling a sense of bitter disappointment. The waitress reappeared and I reached into my satchel for a Polaroid camera that I had brought with me to France. I’d bought it only recently and had been trying to find an opportunity to get a photograph of Maurice and me together.
‘Shall we have a picture?’ I asked.
‘Really?’ he said, his face frowning a little. ‘For what?’
‘For nothing,’ I replied. ‘For friendship.’
He shrugged. ‘All right,’ he said, pulling his chair closer to mine and, to my delight, throwing his arm around my shoulders and grinning at the young woman, who stood back a little and pressed the shutter button. She handed it back to me and, a moment later, the camera released its prize and I stared at it, enraptured, as our images began to appear. He was looking directly into the lens; I had turned my head at the crucial moment and was looking at him.
He moved back to where he had been and an uncomfortable silence ensued, but not wanting any further awkwardness to develop between us, I ordered some more drinks and when they arrived he mentioned that, since Madrid, he’d been thinking a lot about my friendship with Oskar and it saddened him to think of us growing up in Nazi Germany, the shadow of war across our future.
Of course, I told him, when I thought of those days I realized that I had been more focussed on my desire to possess Oskar than on the extraordinary events taking place around us. We knew that it would not be long before we were conscripted into the army and I dreaded that day, not because I feared death but because I didn’t want us to be separated. This was something we finally discussed one evening in Berlin, when I realized that Oskar was just as anxious about the future as I was.
‘I had hoped that some type of resolution would be reached,’ he said as we sat drinking beer in the Böttcher Tavern. Through the window I could see the red-haired guard standing outside the SS headquarters once again, scanning the street. The poor boy seemed as if he was always
‘My father says that the English don’t have the stomach for another war so they’ll allow the Führer to take whatever he wants as long as he leaves them alone.’
‘Then your father is wrong. Hitler will occupy the Low Countries and sail across the North Sea to invade. If he takes France, then it becomes even easier. Still,’ he added, ‘I think I’d rather be a sailor than a soldier. Have you decided which branch you’ll join?’
‘The Luftwaffe,’ I said, the first answer that sprang to mind.
‘Not for me,’ he replied, shaking his head. ‘I don’t want to get shot out of the skies.’
‘You’re right,’ I said, too quickly. ‘Then perhaps I’ll be a sailor too.’
He offered me a look of displeasure and I blushed, knowing that flattery by imitation irritated him. Ever since that afternoon by the Scharfe Lanke I had felt a certain suspicion on his part towards my intentions.
‘The thing that worries me most,’ I said, ‘is the idea of dying without having achieved anything in my life. A writer is supposed to get better as they age but what can I possibly accomplish if I’m killed before I turn twenty?’
‘You need to get started on that novel right away,’ he said with a bittersweet smile. ‘The future doesn’t look good for our generation.’
‘But how can I when I have nothing to write about? I’ve seen nothing, I’ve done nothing. A writer needs experiences to draw upon. Love affairs,’ I added tentatively. ‘A painter does too, I’m sure.’
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes